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2,000+ Pitches Later: How to Improve Your Odds

Since opening for business in the end of September 2015, we have received over 2,000 applications and have reviewed 98% of them. We have seen some very promising applications, and they have common threads. The most promising ones propose approaches that clearly have the potential to be better than existing development practice, they have or will obtain hard evidence of their impact, they have a stellar team, and they have credible plans to reach millions of people living on less than $5 a day. To reiterate, we look for innovation backed up by evidence of impact, potential to scale and a credible team.

On the basis of the thousands of applications we have reviewed, we would like to share some tips to help improve future applications. The aim of this blog is twofold. Firstly to clarify which sorts of innovations are a good fit for GIF, and secondly to help good candidates submit applications that are as compelling as possible.

We want to say from the outset that we receive hundreds of applications for very worthy projects, but many of them are not a good fit for GIF. If you are seeking funds to build a local hospital or to donate cook stoves to a rural community, you are doubtless doing something very valuable.  But unfortunately many excellent projects are turned down by GIF because our mandate is specifically to support innovative models that are better than existing practice and have the potential to go to scale – huge scale, with the possibility of reaching millions of people living on less than $5 a day.   

We receive hundreds of applications every week and when making decisions on initial applications it is impossible for us to consult with applicants on the phone; we must go on the basis of the written application only. As such, we are unable to provide individualised feedback to everyone and we hope that this blog helps answer your questions.

GIF’s Application Questions

Our application questions are grouped into three areas that match our three investment criteria: innovation and impact, potential to scale, and team.

You are welcome to use your own format for the initial application as long as you check that you have covered all of our application questions. You are more likely to get funded if you tailor your application to us, rather than uploading a generic pitch that misses off some of our key application questions.

We have three financing stages at GIF: pilot, test and transition, and scale. We apply the same three criteria to all stages. However for each of those stages we obviously have a different threshold for what sort of progress you have made to date. Whatever your stage, please tell us the current status of your innovation. Many of our first 2,000 applications did not clearly differentiate between what they had achieved to date, and what they planned to do in the future.

The rest of this blog focuses on THREE KEY QUESTIONS that were not addressed well - or at all - in our first 2,000 applications. In other words, this blog focuses on a subset of our application questions.

1st KEY QUESTION: HOW IS YOUR SOLUTION BETTER THAN STANDARD DEVELOPMENT PRACTICE?

 DFID / Pippa RangerPhoto credit:  DFID / Pippa Ranger

50% of the applications received so far have been rejected because they are not able to show that their solution has the potential to be better than existing development practice.

Are you a good fit?

We receive many applications for approaches to development that have been tried and tested before. While community empowerment projects, building schools and constructing hand pumps can be important and helpful solutions, these traditional approaches to development are not something GIF can fund.

What is your innovation and impact?

In your application, take care to articulate why your solution has the potential to be incrementally or radically better than standard development practice. Is it more cost effective? More scalable? Does it reach a lower-income segment of the population?

If you are not aware of what standard development practice is in your field, please conduct your own research before applying to us. In business speak, know who your “competitors” are and be clear about what makes your solution better than “competing” solutions. It’s important to note here that GIF sees your “competitors” as anyone who is achieving the same development impact – not just those organisations using a similar approach. For example, if your target social impact is keeping kids in school, your “competitors” include organisations that aim to keep kids in school through interventions as diverse as cash transfers, building toilets at schools, and providing information to parents on why school is valuable.

Make it credible

Don’t just claim that you have the potential to be better than standard development practice: make it credible by providing evidence. If you can show us data that your intervention is more cost effective than alternative ways of saving lives or educating children, then we will be especially interested in your application. If you have plans to conduct a randomized controlled trial, please tell us about it. At a minimum, tell us what social impact data you collect to show that your innovation makes a difference.  

For early stage innovations, we understand that you may not have this evidence yet; however we do expect you to have reasonable plans about what you want to measure to know whether your innovation is achieving its desired goal.

2nd KEY QUESTION: IS YOUR INNOVATION TRULY SCALABLE? 

 UK in Vietnam - DFIDPhoto credit: DFID

The second most common reason that we have rejected applications is that they are weak on their “potential to scale”. We are interested in funding innovations that can go to huge scale – usually to reach millions of people.  We see a number of paths to scale, from growing your business through the private sector, to partnering with local governments, donors, and foundations, to some hybrid.

Are you a good fit?

There are many worthy development projects that provide important benefits for a small number of people; however they are not within GIF’s remit. If your solution is a one-off project without replication potential, or if the applicability is limited to only one or two small locales, GIF is unable to fund you.

What is your potential to scale?

If your innovation does have potential to scale, then make sure you provide us with the analysis and plans to back it up. Firstly, tell us how big your target market is: how many people suffer from the “pain point” you are addressing? How many of this target market live on less than $5 a day?  How many live on less than $2 a day?

Secondly, tell us how you intend to scale up your innovation. Will you grow your customer base internally or will you franchise? Will you recover enough revenues to be partially or fully self-sustaining at scale?  Do you intend to attract commercial funding? Or how would you be able to convince donors, foundations and governments to fund the roll out of your model through, for example, the public health or education systems?

Make it credible

You need to show that your plans to scale are credible. At a pilot stage, you may not have answers to these questions and we are happy for you to focus on testing your operational model as long as you have a vision for scale.

For later stage deals that are asking for millions of dollars in support, we would expect more concrete progress on building a path to scale. If you plan to scale through the private sector, tell us your current unit economics and how they need to change in order to be profitable. Who will finance you at that scale, and can you convince them that the social returns compensates for a lower-than-market financial return?  If you plan to scale through government or donors, tell us who you have talked to within government and large donors, and what has been agreed.

If you intend to scale your innovation internally, you need to provide a credible distribution plan. For example, we reject very many ideas for products (like solar lanterns or cook stoves) that have no compelling distribution, marketing or customer engagement plans.

3rd KEY QUESTION: WHY IS YOUR TEAM THE RIGHT TEAM TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?

Photo credit - UK in Bangladesh, DFID Photo credit: DFID

Your innovation is nothing without your team to make it a reality. Please, please tell us who you are and why you will be able to deliver on your vision for impact and scale. Very many of the first 2,000 applicants failed to tell us about their team.

Are you a good fit?

We believe that innovations can come from anyone, anywhere. You may be a social entrepreneur from Bangalore, a businesswoman from Burkina Faso, a mayor from Brazil, or an academic from Barcelona. If you have an innovation that can scale to improve the lives of millions of people living on less than $5 a day, you are potentially a good fit for GIF. 

Who is in your team?

Please tell us who your founders are. Please also tell us a bit about your broader team: for example, how many sales agents do you have? Some candidates opt to partner with others to strengthen their proposals – please explain who your partners are and what value they add (e.g. a logistics firm that can help on distribution, or an academic to help measure social impact rigorously).

Make it credible

We want to know why your team is well built to deliver on your vision. You can improve the credibility of your team by telling us how many year’s experience your head of sales has, by telling us how qualified your developers are, or by showing the high calibre of your advisory board. Past accomplishments help: tell us about your track record of attracting money, people and other resources to your organisation.

We want to fund innovators who can drive large social change, so please explain how you create feedback loops in your organisation so that you know when things are working (and not working) well. Finally, explaining why you are so unique and committed to solving this problem will add weight to your application.

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A final point:  Use your four pages / 12 slides wisely

There is a lot of information to cover, so make sure you keep your answers on-topic to address our key application questions. Our initial application format gives you up to four pages or 12 slides to explain why you are a good fit for GIF. To improve your chances of being shortlisted, make sure you use your limited space wisely. If you send us 10 pages or 20 slides, it would be unfair on those who do stick to the limit if we read past page 4 or slide 12.

Thanks for taking the time to understand what we look for – we look forward to reading your application!

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